Thursday, October 31, 2019

From Samhain to Halloween—the DNA and Development of Our Second Most Popular Celebration

NoteThis annual chestnut is back! 
Halloween traces its origin to the Celtic harvest festival Samhain.  It was one of the four festivals that fell between the Solstices and Equinoxes and which celebrated the natural turning of the seasons.  Samhain was particularly important because it was the gate in time to the death and starvation season of winter, as well a time to celebrate the recent harvest. 
This association with the death of winter also extended to the spirit world, which was considered to be closer to the mortal plane than at any other time of the year.  The Celtic priests—the Druids—marked the occasion with the lighting of bonfires and with gifts of food and drink for the spirits of the dead.  Some consider it also analogous to a New Year’s Celebration launching a new cycle of the seasons.  It was popularly celebrated by the peasantry long after the Druids passed and well into the Christian era.

Catholic priests exorcize Druids and their spirits in this fanciful illustration.  But folk customs around Samhain persisted and the Church tried to adapt them to All Souls Day.
Too popular to squelch, as with many pagan observances Catholic Church co-opted the custom as All Saints Day on November 1.   In rural regions especially Samhain customs continued to be observed on the evening before the Holy Day—which came to be known as All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en in Scots.
Immigrants from the British Isles brought some of their customs with them to the New World, but Halloween does not seem to have been widely celebrated colonial America.  The Puritans spent a lot of time trying to squelch other pagan customs like the May Pole dances associated with the spring Celtic festival of Beltane, but for all of their obsession with witchcraft, usually associated with those who continued to keep the old pagan traditions, there is no evidence of suppressing Samhain or Halloween.

These types of colorful greeting cards from around the turn of the 20th Century were  evidence of the growing popularity of Halloween while helping to spread it and create many of the iconic images still associated with it.
In fact there is little mention of Halloween in America until the second half of the 19th Century.  By the 1880’s and ‘90’s greeting card companies were printing colorful post cards featuring images of witches, black cats, skeletons, and pumpkin Jack o’ Lanterns—all of the classic images associated with Halloween.  Period photos from around the turn of the 20th Century show both adults and children in costumes, most commonly some variation of witch or ghost themes.   
A few scattered newspapers began reporting ritual begging on Halloween by masked youths accompanied by general hooliganism, threats, and acts of vandalism.  This was probably introduced by the wave of poor “country” Irish immigrants that began after the Potato Famine and continued through most of the rest of the century.  The ritual begging in costumes and general hooliganism more closely resembled rural Irish Wren DaySt. Stephen’s Day December 26—customs than those celebrated in either England or Scotland.
Rowdyism by boys and young men was reported in big cities and small towns alike and often included setting small bonfires of junk in roadways; tipping or stealing outhouses; pelting houses with eggs, rotten vegetables, or manure; letting horses and livestock loose from barns and pens; and sometimes blocking chimneys so that houses would fill with smoke.  Sometime significant damage was done.  The Halloween scene in the classic MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis shows a rare screen glimpse at the rowdy shenanigans most Americans associated with the celebration.

Parties with wholesome games were a popular alternative to the hooliganism associated with Halloween but failed to stop it.
As it spread, customs for observing the holiday varied regionally. Communities started to organize activities to keep the kids and hooligans off the streets, with mixed success.  Parties with games such as bobbing for apples and the telling of ghost stories were fairly common. 
Animated films of the ‘20’s and ‘30’s such as Walt Disney’s 1929 Silly Symphony The Dancing Skeletons showed the popularity of the holiday and light-hearted images of death, witches, and black cats.  The Skeletons perhaps show a tip-o’-the-hat familiarity with the Mexican customs around The Day of the Dead which is celebrated on All Soul’s Day.

Skeletons became a classic Halloween image, perhaps a nod to the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead.
The custom of trick or treating seems to have spread slowly.  It combined the ritual begging with toned-down tricks that were a little less extreme than the wild rampages reported earlier.  What progress it was making was largely interrupted by the Depression years when families had little extra money to spend on treats and by the sugar rationing of World War II.
Trick or treating was still far from universal until after World War II when it became a topic of popular radio programs like the Jack Benny Show and Ozzie and Harriet.  

Trick or Treating spread rapidly in the post-World War II years.
In 1947 the popular children’s magazine Jack and Jill published a story on the custom of Halloween begging and described it in detail, spreading the practice widely and with amazing uniformity.  By 1951 the practice was wide spread enough that a Philadelphia woman, Mary Emma Allison and the Reverend Clyde Allison decided to channel the energy to constructive purposes by introducing Trick or Treat for UNICEF to support the work of the United Nations international children’s relief.
By the mid 1950’s with the strong support of the candy companies and the introduction of cheap masks and pajama style costumes for children, the practice of trick or treating had become ubiquitous and had even taken on a feeling of a long standing practice.

Black children in classic dime store costumes with a mix and match twist.
What started with ghost stories and the like, soon spread to all types of horror, and fueled by the growing popularity of increasingly violent Hollywood films.  Gore became and more and more common theme and showing horror films for the whole month of October in theaters and on TV was standard by the early 1970’s.
About the same time the first generations of trick or treaters grew up but continued to enjoy the dress-up and parties of Halloween.  It is, year by year, an increasingly popular adult holiday, incorporating many of the features of various world masquerade festivals with macabre twist. 

Adult carousing has made Halloween a rival to New Years Eve and St. Patrick's Day for the party-till-you-puke crowd.

Halloween is now the second most widely celebrated holiday in the United States and is an economic powerhouse, generating sales second only to Christmas.  Popular American media have spread the customs of trick or treating and celebrating gore around the world, often supplanting truly ancient celebrations of Halloween in the Celtic countries.

Fundamentalist opposition to Halloween might be swimming against the cultural tide, but increasingly schools and some municipalities skittish about complaints have substituted a bland harvest festival or banned any kind of celebration.
The resurgence of Christian Fundamentalism in the U.S. has led to a counter movement to strip the “Satanic” festival from public schools and the wider community.  Although they get it wrong—there was never any connection between Satanism and Halloween—the Fundies, ironically, at least recognized a religious tradition hiding under the commercial hoopla. 
At the same time re-invented “traditional” paganism like Wicca, one of the most rapidly growing religious movements of the last decades, has striven to recapture the nearly lost significance of the holiday’s roots in Samhain—and sometime invented traditions on flimsy or non-existent evidence.
Go thou, and celebrate as thou wouldst.  

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Time Was Right for NOW

The National Organization for Women founding conference in Washington, Betty Friedan at far right.
On October 29, 1966 thirty charter members gathered in Washington, D.C. to formally launch a new Civil Rights organization dedicated to improving the status of women in all areas of society.  In no time at all National Organization for Women (NOW) was shaking things up and spearheading a new wave of feminist activism.

The steam seemed to have gone out of the women’s movement after decades of struggle finally was rewarded with the adoption of The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920.  Without a clear, unifying focus organizations withered or went off in different directions.  Many assumed that when women exercised the franchise, other societal reforms would follow naturally.  

Alice Paul of National Women's Party toasting the final ratification of the 19th Amendment.  After the triumph of women's suffrage the feminist movement became unfocused and splintered.
Culturally the flappers of the 1920s seemed to signal a freedom from the cumbersome garments that had restricted the ability of women to move easily in the world and a daring new sexual equality.  The grim realities of the Depression years focused attention on other issues, especially unemployment which as seen as a problem of men who could not support their families.  World War II brought women into the work place as never before, proving that in a wide range of jobs from the factory floor to the executive suite that they were as capable as men.  But at war’s end there was enormous pressure on women to abandon their new jobs to make way for the waves of returning veterans.  Partly this was to prevent the post-war joblessness of veterans and that had haunted the immediate years after World War I.  

By the 1950 cultural expectations were pressing women to conform to a role in an entirely new kind of family—the autonomous nuclear family of dad, mom and kids with mom at home and without the support of extended family or community.  Even though more than a quarter of women of age remained in the work force they were increasingly confined to career ghettos as teachers, nurses, secretaries, and such with little or no chance of advancement.  Many more women, largely ignored even by activists willing to speak up, were employed in low level factory work, as waitresses, in retail, domestic service, and—most invisible of all—in agriculture.  The existing women’s organizations, while well-meaning and often vocal, seemed incapable of finding a handle on how to deal with the situation.

Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was the fuse that lit second wave feminism in the 1960's and which led to the founding of NOW.
There were stirrings of discontent.  Betty Friedan’s 1963 bestselling book The Feminine Mystique is generally regarded as both manifesto and a launching pad for a second wave of feminism.  But as much of a breakthrough as it was, it could not have been successful if it did not touch deep wells of discontent and resentment by women chaffing at their assigned roles in society.  The same year Congress passed the Equal Pay Act of 1963 which called for “equal pay for equal work” for women, but left it largely unenforceable and did not address the problem of low paying job ghettos.

The following year Southern Democrats inserted an amendment to add a ban on discrimination on account of gender to the Civil Rights Bill of 1964.  Although the original sponsor of the amendment, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Howard W. Smith of Virginia did have a long relationship with Alice Paul, the former militant leader of the National Women’s Party, most Southern Democrats supported the amendment in hopes it would derail the entire bill.  The strategy failed.  With the strong arm twisting of President Lyndon Johnson, a filibuster in the Senate was broken and the law passed with Title VII banning sex discrimination in employment intact. 

Women were nearly invisible at the ceremony when Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1963.  But Title VII of the law included what was meant to be a poison pill to kill the legislation--the inclusion of women the definition of employment discrimination.   NOW arose out of frustration in getting the law enforced for women.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was formed in 1965 to enforce the Civil Rights Act. Aileen Hernandez and Richard Graham fought hard as commission members to enforce the Title VII prohibition on sex discrimination but were outvoted 3 to 2 on the critical issue of whether sex segregation in job advertising was permissible.  A month later Yale law professor Dr. Pauli Murray, a member of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, made an impassioned public denouncement of the Commission’s decision. After reading an account in the press, Friedan contacted Murray and they began to explore possibilities for further action.

The first opportunity was the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women which met in Washington June 28-30, 1966 and was attended by both women.  Despite the theme of the Conference, Targets for Action, they and other women were stymied in an attempt to pass a resolution demanding that the EEOC carry out its legal mandate to end sex discrimination in employment. They were told that they had no authority to even put such a resolution forward.  Dissident EEOC commissioners Hernandez and Graham and Commission attorney Sonia Pressman Fuentes privately told Friedan that there was, “…need for an organization to speak on behalf of women in the way civil rights groups had done for Blacks.”

The National Organization for Women's familiar logo had its origins when Freidan doodle the initials NOW on a napkin in a meeting in her hotel room.
On the evening of June 19 fifteen or twenty angry women met in Freidan’s hotel room to plot a strategy including Murray, Catherine Conroy, Inka O’Hanrahan, Rosalind Loring, Mary Eastwood, Dorothy Haener, and Kay Clarenbach.  They agreed that some sort of organization was needed.  Freidan doodled the initials NOW on a napkin.  The next day at the formal concluding banquet for the Conference 28 women sat together.  According to participant Gene Bower, “Catherine Conroy pulled out a five-dollar bill from her wallet and, in her usual terse style, invited us to ‘put your money down and sign your name.’”  An infant organization was launched.

There was some debate whether NOW would be the National Association of or for Women.  The former would indicate an organization for women only; the latter would be open to men who agreed with its aims.  It was decided to be inclusive although only a handful of men, notably Commissioner Graham, were among the 300 or so charter members who signed on before the official founding conference in October.

Although only 10 % of that charter membership was able to attend the founding conference, participants wasted no time getting the new organization up and running.  Freidan was elected President, Clarenbach Board Chair, Hernandez Executive Vice President with the responsibility of day-to-day administration, Graham as Vice President and Caroline Davis Secretary-Treasurer.  The organization entrusted authority to its general membership in Annual Conferences with a Board of 35, including the five officers empowered to act between Conferences.  Between regular Board meetings the five-member Executive Committee would be free to act to carry out decided policy.

Freidan drafted a founding Statement of Purpose, which was intensely debated, but ultimately adopted with mostly cosmetic changes.  It outlined the broad concerns and aims of the organization in all aspects of affairs that impact women and avoided becoming a single issue organization.

On a practical level, the Conformance launched the first initiatives of the new organization including immediate action on Title VII enforcement efforts and authorization for a legal committee to take action on behalf of flight attendants and to challenge so-called protective labor legislation.  Task forces were devised to take up these and other issues.
Betty Freidan.
Describing the founding Conference Freidan wrote: 

We wasted no time on ceremonials or speeches, gave ourselves barely an hour for lunch and dinner...At times we got very tired and impatient, but there was always a sense that what we were deciding was not just for now “but for a century...” We shared a moving moment of realization that we had now indeed entered history.
Soon the rapidly growing organization in addition to pioneering work on workplace equality was spearheading a renewed drive for the Equal Rights Amendment, demanding the end of restrictions on access to contraceptives and abortion, pushing for equal opportunity in academics and sports.  NOW saw the “second wave” of feminism grow into a tidal wave by the end of the decade.  Dozens of other organizations, many of them seeded by NOW or founded by their leaders joined the efforts on specific issues.  

Passing the Equal Rights Amendment and securing abortion rights were central issues for NOW in its first decades.

Despite strains in the movement over militant separatism in the ‘70’s and changes in society, NOW remains the preeminent voice for women’s rights. Its familiar round logo is seen on signs at demonstration across the county wherever past gains are threatened or new ground is to be broken.  It has risen to the challenges of Trump Era misogyny and repeated assaults on hard fought feminist gains including freedom of reproductive choice, women’s health, and civil rights protections while confronting sexual harassment, intimidation, intimidation, and violence.  

Today young women energize NOW as it confronts Trump Era attacks.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Sanctuary in a Very Bad Week—The Tree of Life Mass Murder Murfin Verse

A memorial to the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue mass murder this week in Pittsburgh.
Note—This week marked the first anniversary of the mass murder at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27.  I was asked to do the Chalice Lighting at the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry the next day.    The topic for the morning was sanctuary.  I threw away what I had carefully prepared.  I was planning on reading this new poem instead which was totally inadequate to the situation but due to a scheduling mix up, I didn’t read it that day.  I will be reading it publicly for the first time this Saturday night at the Tree of Life Coffee House from 7-10 pm at the church, 5603 Bull Valley Road in McHenry.  As you will see the poem also references other ugly, hateful episodes the same week. 

Sanctuary in a Very Bad Week

Trump Attempts to Erase Transgender Identity
Two Blacks Killed at Walmart by Angry Racist
14 Bombs Sent to Targets Denounced by Trump
11 Dead at Tree of Life Synagogue Mass Murder

Sacred shelter—A haven offered or sought,  
   a holy obligation and a desperate resort.
The Church once offered it to those fleeing
   the wrath of a king or war lord.
Today we are called to offer it to
   immigrants and refugees,
      the homeless and unwanted,
            the despised of color, gender, faith,
               abused women and families,
                  all the wretched.

Know this—Sanctuary can fail.
   Ask Thomas Becket, Ann Frank,
      the four little Girls of Birmingham,
            the frozen bum,
               the murdered wife,
                  the deported asylum seeker,
         the immigrant children in cages, 
            the dead Jews of Tree of Life.

But failure does not cancel hope or duty.
   time to step up,
      to take our chances,
            to become a People of Sanctuary.

—Patrick Murfin

Monday, October 28, 2019

Fall Fun at Tree of Life Coffee House This Saturday

Poet Carol Alfus read at last spring's Tree of Life Coffee House.
The Tree of Life Coffee House will return to the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 5603 Bull Valley Road in McHenry on Saturday, November 2 from 7 to 10 pm.
The Coffee House is noted for showcasing a wide variety of performers and musicians across multiple genres.  
This fall edition will feature a mix of returning favorites and first time performers.  George “Kaz” Kazluski will return as master of ceremonies.

Ukulele Superheroes are a favorite at the Coffee House.
Families are welcome but should be advised that some artists might employ adult themes and language.
Light refreshments including coffee, soft drinks, and water will be available at no charge and there is no fee for admittance.  A free will offering will be taken to defray expenses.
For more information about the event, email, call Tree of Life at 815 322-2464 or visit the Facebook event.

Freedom Walks for Justice in Woodstock Calls for Latino Vote Participation

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in McHenry County will hold a Freedom Walks for Justice rally and march on Woodstock Square on Saturday, November 2 beginning at 1 pm.  LULAC members, friends, and supporters will walk as a group for one mile on the sidewalks around the Square with one message:  “We walk, Mobilize, and Vote.”
The program will begin with a rally around the Gazebo on the Square at 1 pm featuring Latino voices for political empowerment and civic participation at a time when Brown communities are under stress and attack.  Voter registration and political involvement will be stressed.

Maggie Rivera of LULAC.
Maggie Rivera of LULAC and longtime McHenry County Latino leader who will be the on-stage host of the program noted that, “November 2 is also the second day of the traditional Day of the Dead celebration, one of our most important and festive cultural celebrations.  We will use the occasion to remind ourselves and the wider population that despite attacks on our communities and on immigrants, we are not dead and will make our growing power be felt in upcoming elections.”
The local event is just many marches across the U.S. that began in Washington, D.C. on October 3 and will conclude in the same city on November 3.  Altogether there were 15 major marches in cities with large immigrant and Latino populations including six in Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Jackson, Mississippi; Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Charlottesville, Virginia with scores of local marches like the one in Woodstock.
Freedom Walks for Justice pays “homage to the Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights Movement and mobilizes diverse communities around the country facing the same threat—hate and injustice.  The most powerful tool we have to combat systematic discrimination is the ballot box and that is why Freedom Walks mobilizes and registers voters, encouraging our communities to have a voice,” said Sindy Benavides, national CEO of LULAC.
LULAC is the oldest and largest nation organization for Latino citizens.

The Social Justice Team of the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry is a partner in the local effort.
For more information call Patrick Murfin at 815 814-5645 or visit the Facebook Event.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Diwali—Hindu Celebration of the Victory of Light Over Darkness

There are many Festivals of Light celebrated by religions and cultures around the world including Christmas, Chanukah, and Winter Solstice observances familiar in the West.  But none are more colorful or enjoyed with such gleeful abandon a Diwali, the Hindu festival of the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance.  In most of the Northern Hemisphere the five day holiday begins this year on October 27, although some Indian states and Hindu diaspora communities start on October 28.  In the Southern Hemisphere it is observed in the Spring.

During the celebration, temples, homes, shops, and work places are brightly illuminated.  In most of India the climax of the festival occurs on the third day coinciding with the darkest night of the Hindu solar month Kartika. In the Gregorian calendar, it generally falls between mid-October and mid-November.  

Lighting diyas around a Hindu temple.

During the climax, revelers adorn themselves in their finest clothes, illuminate the interior and exterior of their homes with diyas (oil lamps or candles), offer puja (worship) to Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and wealth, They light fireworks, and enjoy family feasts, where mithai (sweets),  and gifts are shared. 

Details of the celebration vary across regions and even the names of each feast day change with local dialects and languages.  In much of southern India and in Sri Lanka Tamils celebrate the first day of Diwali as most significant.  Diwali is also a major cultural event for Jains and other religious minorities on the Indian Subcontinent.   the Sikhs celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas to mark the release of Guru Hargobind from a Mughal Empire prison,  Newar Buddhists, unlike other Buddhists, celebrate Diwali by worshipping Lakshmi, while the Bengali Hindus generally celebrate Diwali, by worshipping Goddess Kali.  Except for Muslims and the small minority of Indian Christians, pretty much the whole country takes off to party.  

William Simpson labelled his chromolithograph of 1867 as Dewali, feast of lamps. It showed streets lit up at dusk, with a girl and her mother lighting a street corner lamp
The Diwali festival is likely a fusion of harvest festivals in ancient India.  It is mentioned in Sanskrit texts such as the Padma Purana, the Skanda Purana both of which were completed in the second half of the 1st Millennium CE. The diyas  are mentioned in Skanda Kishore Purana as symbolizing parts of the Sun, describing it as the cosmic giver of light and energy to all life and which seasonally transitions in the Hindu calendar month of Kartika.  

Most British, Commonwealth, and North American Hindu communities have their roots in the north of India and commonly celebrate these five days:

Indian diaspora communities often celebrate with public performances of folk dancing and other ethnic traditions like this one  at the United India Association of New England.
Day OneDhanteras marks the beginning when people traditionally purchase some gold or silver or at least one or two new cooking utensils for good luck.

Day TwoNarak Chaturdasi is also called Choti Diwali when people take oil baths before sunrise with ubtan, a homemade paste of herbs that can be used as a soap, and a a face or body mask.

The goddess Lakshmi.
Day ThreeLakshmi Puja is the main and most festive day of the festival when people keep the house spotlessly clean and pure to welcome goddess Lakshmi. After a day of fasting sweets and gifts are shared.  Lamps are lit in the evening, and Lakshmi puja, a home religious observance celebrating the goddess with chants, mantras, and honoring of ancestors.  Celebrations spill from homes and businesses into the streets with more lamp lighting, singing and dancing and public fireworks.

A family celebrates with sparklers and new clothes.
Day FourGovardhan Puja or Padwa celebrates the love between husband and wife in commemoration of Parvati and her husband Shiva as well as the lifting the Govardhan mountain by Krishna to save a cowherd and farming communities from incessant rains and floods triggered by Indra’s anger.  It is thus also a harvest fest and day of thanksgiving marked by Annakut, the mountain of food. Communities prepare a meal over one hundred dishes from a variety of ingredients, which is dedicated to Krishna before shared communally. Hindu temples on this day prepare and present mountains of sweets to the faithful who have gathered for darshan, a visit. In Gujarat, the day is also called Annakut is the first day of the new year and celebrated through the purchase of sabras, the  good things in life, such as salt, offering prayers to Krishna and visiting temples.

Family temple prayers before the Mountain of Sweets.
Day FiveBhai Duj celebrates the bond between brother and sister.  Women of the family gather, perform a puja with prayers for the wellbeing of their brothers, then return to a ritual of feeding their brothers with their hands and receiving gifts. In some Hindu traditions the women recite tales where sisters protect their brothers from enemies that seek to cause him either bodily or spiritual harm. Often brothers travel to meet their sisters, or invite their sister's family to their village to celebrate their sister-brother bond with the bounty of seasonal harvests.

A sister feeding her brother on Bhai Duj.
Variations on these are almost infinite in the complex world of Hinduism and can even vary from village to village in the same regions.  But the joy of the season is celebrated by more than 800 million people worldwide making it one of the largest religious festivals on the planet.